Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Fallacy of Efficiency - Why Organic Can Feed the World

When engaged in an organic versus conventional agricultural debate, proponents of conventional methods often use the "organic can't feed the world" argument.  The reasons why vary depending on who you're talking to, but some possibilities are that there's not enough land, or organic agriculture doesn't produce high enough yields, or the local and organic farm system is too disorganized and inefficient.  To that I ask, who said that conventional farms are efficient, have high yields, or use less land than organic methods?  What studies provide that information?

A recent article by The Atlantic provides a comprehensive set of resources to prove that organic agriculture can not only feed the world, but that conventional can't.  Under our current, largely conventional system, 1 billion people worldwide are undernourished.  Dozens of studies have been compiled over the last few decades to show that conventional agriculture has generally failed in its long-term efforts to increase crop yields, and organic methods in fact equal and often surpass conventional yields, requiring less land as a result.  I have written in the past about the Rodale Institute's 30 year study that supports such claims, and would also like to note the Iowa study that drew similar conclusions.  The idea that conventional farming somehow produces more food on less land is a lie, and the fact that it is still widely accepted doesn't make it less of a lie. 

Additionally, as The Atlantic mentions, there exists a notable lack of studies that provide hard evidence that organic farming can't feed the world.  An excerpt from the article reads " In an exhaustive review using Google and several academic search engines of all the scientific literature published between 1999 and 2007 addressing the question of whether or not organic agriculture could feed the world, the British Soil Association, which supports and certifies organic farms, found (PDF) that there had been 98 papers published in the previous eight years addressing the question of whether organic could feed the world. Every one of the papers showed that organic farming had that potential. Not one argued otherwise."  Extensive marketing, lobbying, and misinformation has kept the public in the dark about the truth behind conventional ag for some time, but those barriers are slowly dissolving.

Lastly,  I want to take a moment to talk about efficiency.  Conventional agriculture has led our society to believe that bigger is better - that is to say that when you industrialize agriculture on a large scale, you are able to streamline your production system as you would in a factory, and thus produce higher yields with lower costs and less waste.  The studies noted above as well as many others like them, along with the current global climate and ecological problems we are facing point to the illegitimacy of this belief.  A network of small, local, organic farms is much more efficient than large scale conventional farming in terms of yield, waste, transportation costs, economic potential, ecological viability, and public health, to only name a few.  One of the biggest hurdles the organic movement must jump today is breaking down that reputation of efficiency and plenty that conventional agriculture has made for itself.

If you want to start down the path toward true efficiency, check out your local farmer's market.  Farmers markets and CSA programs exist even in winter, and are a great way to boost your local economy while enjoying fresh, local, whole foods.  Check out our Winter Food Project to learn more.

Have a great evening!

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